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Starting this weekend you’ll be able to savor an eight-course tasting menu inside a downtown food hall from Chef Paolo Dungca that’s inspired by both the Filipino dishes he grew up eating and his culinary journey through kitchens such as Restaurant Eve, Bad Saint, Kaliwa, and ABC Pony.
Dungca has been flipping burgers and frying chicken at Pogiboy inside The Block over the past year while simultaneously searching for a home for Hiraya. Having struck out on real estate so far, he decided to transform a mezzanine area inside The Block into an inviting space for a long-term pop-up. To start, Hiraya will operate Friday and Saturday nights. There are 24 seats and dinner is by reservation only.
“The reason I chose to open Hiraya at The Block for the time being was to eliminate the barriers to entry that I was facing,” Dungca says. “For chefs like me—immigrants and people of color—it’s so hard to find opportunities to open a fine dining restaurant of this magnitude. You need to know enough investors and people with capital that can fund millions of dollars. Someone with my background just doesn’t have those connections or opportunities easily floating around. I had to make my own way.”
In just a decade, Dungca progressed from working as a dishwasher at Disneyland to being an indispensable part of D.C.’s Filipino food scene with the help of mentors like Chef Tom Cunanan. Both are from the Pampanga province of the Philippines, which many consider the nation’s culinary capital. They run Pogiboy together.
Dungca says The Block’s founder, Arturo Mei, understands adversity. His career as a food entrepreneur began out of a school bus converted to sell ice cream with Snocream Company. “We knew what it took to make this work,” Dungca says. “I hope if this space becomes a success, it will empower other chefs like me to think outside the box and find opportunities where none currently exist.”
Hiraya, fittingly, is an ancient word for the fruit of one’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It’s also a TV show Dungca watched as a kid that tackles topics like humility, courage, and discipline—values that come in handy in the restaurant kitchen.
Dinner starts with a snack that has become a signature Hiraya dish at pop-ups throughout the city—cassava cake with crab fat, lardo, and salmon roe. Cassava cake is usually served as a dessert at family parties, Dungca explains. He took his aunt’s handwritten recipe and adjusted it so he could use it as a vessel for savory toppings.
You could say Dungca has a thing for crab fat. It makes several appearances on the menu. He discovered how it’s used as a condiment on his last visit to the Philippines, where the aggressively orange crab roe is called “aligue” or “aligé.” “When I first had it I was mind blown by the flavor and how rich and savory it is,” he says. “I think it goes well with everything.”
Other dishes include a custard made with oat milk and topped with chicken skin, hamachi with granny smith apples, duck in black garlic adobo, and a dessert that weds bibingka and Basque-style cheesecake.
“Bibingka is usually a rice cake dessert eaten during the Christmas holidays,” Dungca says. “You go to church in the morning and after church there would be vendors on the street making bibingka. It’s a nostalgic family thing.” His version is made with rice flour, cream cheese, and salted duck egg. It’s served with a coconut anglaise.
“The menu is inspired by all of the dishes I grew up eating when I was a child—some are family recipes or inspired by classic Filipino dishes interpreted in a way where I’m adding techniques I’ve learned from all the great chefs I’ve come across at previous jobs,” Dungca says. “I don’t want Hiraya to be labeled ‘traditional Filipino,’ because I don’t think it is, but the flavors are there.”
Dinner is $95 for eight courses and customers can choose to tack on wine pairings from Amanda Carpenter, who worked with Dungca at Bad Saint, for an additional $45. Both prices are before tax and tip. See the opening menus below.
Dungca says his ultimate goal is for diners to feel like they’re at his house instead of in a food hall. “That’s the nature of what Filipino hospitality is,” he says. “Being welcome and there’s plenty of food and things are being shared.”
Hiraya at The Block, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW; hirayadc.com